As the deadly coronavirus continues to bedevil Iran, there is growing concern about the danger it poses to tens of thousands of victims of chemical weapons who suffer from respiratory problems and lung diseases.
An estimated 100,000 Iranians survived chemical-weapons attacks by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and many are disabled by chronic illnesses caused by exposure to mustard and nerve gas.
Several such victims of chemical attacks have died recently after contracting the coronavirus, which is deadly for the elderly and people who have serious medical conditions, including heart and lung diseases.
According to Iranian Health Ministry figures released on March 16, 988 people have died after contracting COVID-19, while the number of those infected is 16,169. The real numbers of cases and dead are believed to be significantly higher.
Haj Morteza Malek, a retired colonel with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Hojatoleslam Abolghassem Erami, a former Friday Prayers leader in Ghamsar, are among chemical-weapons victims who have died in recent days after contracting the coronavirus.
Both were exposed to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War after Hussein launched multiple attacks against Iranian soldiers and civilians in western Iran.
Malek died in Damghan last week, Khabaronline.ir reported, while Erami was reported to have died in a Kashan hospital on March 15.
There are also unconfirmed reports that other IRGC war veterans who were exposed to chemical agents have died recently after being infected with the coronavirus.
Reformist political activist Feyzollah Arabsorkhi tweeted on March 6 that the coronavirus had killed 18 people suffering from exposure to chemical weapons. He did not provide a source for the figure, which was cited by other media.
The authorities have not issued any figures on the number of chemical-weapons survivors who have died after contracting COVID-19. But they warned that such people faced a higher risk amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has spread to all 31 provinces.
The pandemic has put an unprecedented strain on hospitals and health-care workers at a time when the country faces tough U.S. economic sanctions that have crippled the economy.
The state Foundation for Martyrs and Veteran Affairs said in a February 26 statement that veterans of chemical-weapon attacks are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, while calling on them and their families to take protective measures, including washing their hands and staying away from people with flu-like symptoms.
Lawmaker Rasool Khezri, who represents Piranshahr and Sardasht, two cities targeted with chemical weapons during the war, expressed concern on March 15 over the health of several thousand such survivors living in the area.
He told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that there had thus far been five confirmed cases and three suspected cases of veterans dying due to coronavirus in his region.
He said the cities were being sanitized, traffic was being controlled, and a location for a 30-bed field hospital had been identified.
"The situation is [currently alright] but since we're in a border region and we have around 8,000 survivors of chemical weapons as well as students in Shin Abad [who sustained burns in a 2012 fire], the issue is very concerning," Khezri said.
Mohammad Nasiri, the head of the volunteer organization of Iran’s Red Crescent Society, said over the March 14-15 weekend that 4,000 health packages, including antibacterial gel and masks, had been sent recently to Sardasht residents who were affected by a June 1987 chemical attack.
"There are many survivors of chemical weapons in [Sardasht] who have respiratory problems and their families have also developed illnesses," Nasiri told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on March 14. "If coronavirus attacks these people and spreads widely in the area, there will be serious problems. Health packages will continue to be sent to Sardasht until the coronavirus is defeated."
Domestic media outlets have recently quoted several chemical-weapon victims saying that they’re staying home to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
Survivor Hamidreza Haghshenas said the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans should supply oxygen masks for people like him who are not able to leave their homes due to the coronavirus outbreak. Victims of chemical warfare often need inhalers and oxygen masks to alleviate their breathing problems.
"People are so afraid of the coronavirus these days that when we go out and cough, they run away from us even though we have always had severe coughs," he said.
Veteran Khodamorad Hemati said staying home was the only way to defeat the coronavirus. "At one time we came to the battlefield to fight the real enemy [Iraq] and defend our homeland and our honor and we didn’t stay home for a single moment," he said.
"But today we're facing a battle against coronavirus and, based on what doctors say, staying at home is the only way to win this war."